Taliesin West, Phoenix
Taliesin West was the last item on our itinerary before heading home and as alluded to in my previous blog entry, warranted its own dedicated blog entry.
Located 30 miles north of Phoenix, Taliesin West was the architectural school of renowned 20th century architect Frank Lloyd Wright. Built in 1937, Frank Lloyd Wright lived in its residential quarters until his death in 1959.
Built on the brow of a hill rather than on the hill itself in order to avoid spoiling the hill’s profile (Taliesin means “shining brow”), Taliesin West was a prime example of what our guide referred to as “organic architecture” (namely, architecture that uses the natural environment, time period and people as the basis for its design) and had a timeless, if utterly bizarre, aesthetic.
Frank Lloyd Wright famously loathed traditional, box-shaped buildings, deeming them “fascist”. He also hated the traditional notion of being greeted by a “grand foyer” when entering a house and having everything branch off this foyer in predictable fashion. Instead, he felt that architecture should be “discovered”, revealed to you as you moved through it rather than all at once; akin to the experience of reading a novel. As such, Taliesin West was the antithesis of a box, consisting of multiple organic-shaped structures containing open-plan areas and concealed, non-obvious entrances. Though this meant that it was interesting to look at, it also made it really quite difficult to photograph (as the photos in this blog entry demonstrate).
The decor was a mix of Asian (Frank Lloyd Wright loved Japan and thought it was the most romantic place in the world), Native American (a colour that featured throughout was Cherokee red, Frank Lloyd Wright’s favourite colour), The Flinstones (most of the exterior walls consisted of local desert rocks, stacked within wood forms and filled with concrete – also referred to as “desert masonry”) and space age futurism.
Frank Lloyd Wright designed everything in the complex down to each individual item of furniture and the rooms were full of design features that reflected his personal likes and dislikes. The living room, for instance, was furnished with very low-level parallelogram-shaped seating. This is because Frank Lloyd Wright was 5’6 and considered people over 5’7 to be a waste of space and in his view, standing people (especially tall ones) defaced his architecture.
There was also an absence of art on the walls, something Frank Lloyd Wright generally insisted upon throughout his buildings. This rule apparently extended to homes that he designed for other people – on one of his regular, unannounced inspections of a house he had designed, he saw that a client had hung a huge Picasso on the wall and demanded that it be removed immediately.
Some of Frank Lloyd Wright‘s design choices proved impractical. For instance, he hated traditional guttering systems as he felt that they disfigured the exterior of a building but the internal concealed guttering system that he had designed for Taliesin West meant that the house was decidedly leaky judging by the amount of buckets collecting rainwater dotted about the place.
In addition, he originally designed many of the rooms to be completely open to the elements (he thought that glass would spoil the overall aesthetic) but conceded that this was unworkable in the desert heat during the summer months and installed glass panels throughout the house in 1947. However, he refused to move anything around to accommodate these glass panels, stubborn man that he was, choosing instead to build the glass panels around small items such as earthenware pots.
Other notable rooms included the surprisingly small bedrooms arranged around and opening via sliding doors onto a courtyard, Frank Lloyd Wright’s private office with its tiny desk, a strange almost windowless bunker-type room used for private dining and for screening unedited Hollywood motion pictures often lasting up to 10-12 hours and finally, a theatre entirely upholstered in Cherokee red where he forced his architecture students to perform musical recitals every year.
Modernist Pilgrimage to Phoenix
Phoenix, Arizona was a bit of a step down in the glamour stakes after Palm Springs (it only factored into our plans because it was en route back to London) and we’d made the foolish mistake of coinciding our visit with Thanksgiving Day in the US (which explains why most of the photos in this blog entry look like something out a post-apocalyptic film) but it turned out that there was a lot to like about the place from a mid century/modernist perspective.
Armed with our map from modernphoenix.net (a spectacular, if slightly overwhelming resource setting out every modernist building of interest in the city), we wandered around taking in various commercial buildings.
This included Hanny’s (formerly a department store, now a restaurant) from 1947 with its international-style facade, the US Federal Building and Courthouse from 1961, Central Towers (often referred to as the “U-Haul Towers” since U-Haul’s headquarters are located there) from 1959-62, Pyramid on Central (basically a concrete inverted pyramid) from 1979, the Lescher & Mahoney office (a two-storey courtyard office building occupied by an architectural firm) from 1963, the Phoenix Financial Centre together with the “North Rotunda” and the “South Rotunda” (today used as government offices) from 1964-72, Durant’s (a longstanding steak restaurant) from 1950, the Fifth Avenue Medical Building from 1967 and the Dental Arts building (essentially a box on silts, a popular design solution in Phoenix for providing shaded parking while maximising the leasable area of an office building) from 1969.
We came across some futuristic-looking mid-century motels featuring dramatic angles, bold colours and oversized neon signs, the best example of this being the City Centre Motel (now a Travelodge) from 1959. Most of these had been left to ruin and had a distinctly seedy feel upon closer inspection.
In contrast, we also came across a concentration of nice garden apartment buildings from the late 1950s/1960s on Fifth and Sixth Avenues. These garden apartment buildings were characterised by a low-rise profile, the incorporation of a central open space, generous patios and balconies (designed to provide shade for the unit below) and a general blurring of the line between indoor and outdoor spaces. These garden apartment buildings mostly had glamorous park-like names such as Park North, Royal Riviera, Park Fifth Avenue and The Shorewood.
In terms of shopping, we discovered a cluster of around ten decent but not especially bargain-filled mid century/vintage stores along N Seventh Avenue.
Perhaps most significantly of all, Phoenix was home to several Frank Lloyd Wright buildings, two of which we visited – First Christian Church and Taliesin West.
First Christian Church was first designed around 1950 for a local client which went bankrupt. The design was revived by First Christian in 1970, long after Frank Lloyd Wright’s death and was completed in 1973. Meant to “evoke the Holy Trinity and reflect an attitude of prayer”, the chapel’s roof and triangular spire were 77 ft high, supported by 23 slender triangular pillars. The church was accompanied by a separate and free-standing 120 ft bell tower built in 1978 and topped with a 22 ft cross.
Slightly further afield was Taliesin West, Frank Lloyd Wright’s winter home and architectural school. This bizarre building warrants its own dedicated blog entry, which will follow.